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Personalities, Complexities : 2 Men and 3 Major Issues Snarl L.A. School Talks

Times Education Writer

Money. Power. Respect.

Those are the words that combatants on both sides use over and over to describe what is at stake as the Los Angeles Unified School District and its teachers enter the final hours before a strike set for Monday.

After a year of hard bargaining, the two sides remain at an impasse over the size of the salary increase for teachers. On Saturday, hopes of reaching a settlement dimmed when a divided school board said it could not raise its latest offer of a 21.5% pay increase over three years.

Also unresolved is the delicate and complex question of who should run the district’s 600 schools. Should the authority remain almost solely with administrators, or should teachers share the power? Or parents? Or some combination of the three?

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And then there are stumbling blocks of politics and personality. Two of the seven members of the Board of Education are fighting for their political lives in the June 6 runoff election, with the union a central player in both races. The board is deeply divided over key aspects of negotiations, especially over money.

To a significant degree, the dispute has been a standoff between the district’s low-key superintendent, Leonard Britton, and the union’s tough-talking president, Wayne Johnson. They are about as different as two people can be--and it is no exaggeration to say they are not the best of friends.

Districts locally and throughout the nation will be watching closely to see how the bitter fight ends.

“It’s going to have a major impact,” said state Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig, who has urged the union to accept the district’s salary offer. “People are watching and are worried about it. We may all get tarred with the brush . . . and risk a backlash from Sacramento,” possibly in the form of more restrictions on the way schools spend the state’s money, he said.

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Major Obstacle Is Money

Money remains the major obstacle to a settlement.

The union has asked for a 21% raise over two years--11% this year and 10% in 1990--which would cost $241.5 million. Under this proposal, the current beginning salary of $23,440 would rise to $26,018 this year and $28,620 next year, while the current top pay of $43,319 would rise to $48,084 this year and $52,892 next year.

The district has given a firm offer of 8% this year, 5.5% in 1990 and 8% in 1991--for a total cost of $247 million. The beginning salary would increase to $25,316 this year and to $28,427 by 1990, while the current maximum salary would jump to $46,594 this year and to $52,030 by 1990.

The district has pledged to go higher--up to 24% over the three years--using a formula that would give teachers 60% of any new state money that becomes available.

The union argues that the district’s $3.5-billion budget already has enough money for a 20% raise over two years.

Misrepresentation Alleged

In a report to a state arbitrator, the union contends that the district routinely misrepresents its finances. For instance, the union says the district underestimated the amount of lottery money it will receive from the state this year.

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The district maintains that the vagaries of the state budget process make it difficult to predict how much money will be available for salaries.

“The union is half right and half wrong,” says board member Warren Furutani, a union ally. “We clearly need to tighten up (the budget) in some areas. Their focusing on year-end balances is legitimate. But they point to some (accounts) that can’t be used for salaries.”

Johnson sums it up this way: “We’re trying to get some control over district budgeting, to get them to re-prioritize” and place teachers’ and classroom needs before those of administration. “In that sense,” he said, “this (fight) is very much about power.”

The seven members of the Los Angeles Board of Education are wrestling not only with how to heal their fractured relations with thousands of teachers, but with deep divisions among themselves. Only four members--Furutani, board President Roberta Weintraub, Jackie Goldberg and Julie Korenstein--support the 21.5% pay offer. The others--Rita Walters, Leticia Quezada and Alan Gershman--are opposed to financing the offer by making deep cuts in other areas, such as emergency reserves and administrator salaries.

Election Runoffs

Gershman and Korenstein both face tight runoffs with challengers next month. The union opposes Gershman and supports Korenstein.

Caught in the middle is Britton, whose effectiveness as a peacemaker, some board members say, has been severely hampered by their disagreements.

“It’s been very, very hard for him,” Weintraub said. “He’s not working with a totally pro-union board or with a totally pro-administration board. The board vacillates and has major differences on all the big philosophical issues. So it is very difficult to be the superintendent in this district.”

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Britton came to Los Angeles two years ago from the Dade County, Fla., school system, where he was widely regarded as the best friend Miami teachers ever had in a superintendent. According to Pat Tornillo, United Teachers of Dade executive vice president, Britton built an atmosphere of trust between teachers and the administration, encouraging collaboration instead of confrontation. Today, Dade is considered a path-breaking district in the movement to empower teachers. And Britton, Tornillo says, “laid the groundwork for it,” helping to devise a “school-based management” program now in 96 Miami schools.

However, Britton--at least publicly--has played the heavy in the drama over the teachers’ contract. Last fall, when teachers expanded a boycott of certain duties, he announced that the district would dock their pay. When teachers threatened to withhold first semester grades, he countered by threatening to hold back paychecks. And last Monday, he ordered teachers to turn in final grades early or risk losing their May salaries. The union’s response was to move up the strike, which originally had been scheduled for May 30.

According to one district official, Britton got swept up in “trying to outgun Wayne Johnson . . . instead of trying to win the hearts and minds of teachers.”

Plan Failed

Britton’s main attempt at collaborating with union leaders--to devise a shared decision-making plan--ended in failure, district and union sources said. The proposal called for creating school councils composed of union teachers, the principal, parents and other school employees, but it stipulated that teachers would have one more seat than the total of the others. The principal would head the council, with the union chapter chief serving as vice chair. The councils would make decisions on budget allocations, use of school equipment and scheduling of final exams, grading periods and other events.

“We were comfortable with (the proposal) and the superintendent was comfortable with it,” Johnson said. “But he took it back (to the board) and they rammed it down his throat. He couldn’t get the board to agree on something he worked with us on on a personal level. So we wrote him off. There’s no sense dealing with someone who can’t make a deal and make it stick.”

So, with Johnson leading the charge, the union’s rank and file turned against Britton, even calling for his ouster.

Part of Johnson’s motivation, some observers believe, is his drive to be a major player in the labor movement.

‘Shanker of the West’

“He wants to be the Al Shanker of the West Coast,” says one acquaintance, referring to the powerful, longtime head of the New York-based American Federation of Teachers.

But while Shanker has changed from a hard-liner and a militant to a more reasoned advocate for school improvement, Johnson remains entrenched in traditional union tactics, emphasizing bread-and-butter issues and painting administrators as the enemy, supporters and critics say.

Johnson represents “the old-fashioned pump ‘em up, get ‘em angry, make-management-into-the-bad-guy (approach),” state schools chief Honig said. “This is the old industrial confrontation model. Almost nobody is using that anymore.”

Nonetheless, both his detractors and admirers agree that Johnson is an effective leader, ever mindful of his constituency.

“One of the things about Wayne,” said Miles Meyers, president of the California Federation of Teachers, “is that he pays a lot of attention to schools. He doesn’t lose sight of the fact that what matters is what goes on at the school sites. It’s the reason he has the strength he does. He’s got a lot of contacts (with individual teachers) . . . and he’s built up a lot of political credit.”

Said Lucy Findlay, a Nimitz Junior High School teacher: “Wayne is a fantastic spokesperson. He verbalizes and demonstrates the will of the teachers. He expresses all the things that are festering inside me.”

Tone of Negotiations

At the same time, some critics say, Johnson has purposely made the negotiations more venomous than they should have been.

“He has leaped at every opportunity to beat up on Britton instead of searching for peace,” said one labor leader, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified.

Both the district and the union say they are close to agreement on the issue of school governance. Both concur that more decisions--such as those concerning curriculum, discipline, class schedules, budgets and teaching methods--should be made at the school level instead of by a remote central office staff. And, they agree that new school councils should be created to make such decisions.

“We are so close on this one,” said board member Jackie Goldberg. “What we’re fighting over is what is the best formula” to determine the councils’ membership and implementation.

The union has proposed a two-stage approach. The first would establish a “shared decision-making” council of teachers, parents and administrators at each school. Teachers would hold 51% of the seats. The councils would have authority to make decisions only on issues that affect teachers, such as use of copying machines and classroom equipment, scheduling of standardized tests and budgeting for supplies.

Second Phase

In the second phase, the union proposes a districtwide task force to develop “site-based management” councils, which would have more sweeping powers. Schools would be invited to submit plans to the task force to show how the school would raise student achievement.

Under the district’s proposal, each school would design its own council with equal input from parents, teachers and administrators. The district and the union would have to approve of each plan. Johnson objects to this, saying it would set up a bureaucratic “gauntlet.”

Both sides agree, however, that the big “loser” under either proposal is the principal, who would be forced to share power with parents and teachers.

“From the principal’s perspective,” district negotiator Dick Fisher said, “we are proposing a fairly radical change.”

Some administrators are worried because they believe the principal is legally responsible for the safety and performance of the school.

Also unresolved are questions about providing elementary teachers with preparation time and eliminating yard duties for elementary instructors. Elementary teachers have 30 minutes before school and 10 minutes after class for preparation, but teachers say those times are often spent on meetings or supervision duties. For most, that leaves the lunch period to plan lessons, use the copying machine, call parents or attend to paper work and other tasks.


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